St. Therese of Lisieux on Devotion to the Saints

Most Catholics have some special saints to whom we are devoted.  Our Churches and homes are filled with beautiful images of them.  Yet, unlike a devotional practice like the rosary, we never seem to be taught how we should practice these devotions.  Pamphlets and books instructing us about the rosary, why and how to pray it well, abound.  But few materials exist that instruct us how we should practice these devotions.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church does give us some insight.  It teaches that the saints are examples for us to emulate, “by canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors” (CCC 828).  Since the saints are models for us to imitate, why not follow their examples about their own devotions towards the saints?  I will begin with St. Theresa of Lisieux, a popular saint and Doctor of the Church.  Three incidents in her life are especially instructive. 

When St. Therese was preparing to travel to Rome to ask the pope for permission to enter the Carmelites at a young age, she explains that she was worried about being exposed to the impurity of the world.  She writes:

“I prayed specially to St. Joseph to watch over me; from my childhood, devotion to him has been interwoven with my love for our Blessed Lady. Every day I said the prayer beginning: “St. Joseph, Father and Protector of Virgins” . . . so I felt I was well protected and quite safe from danger” (Story of a Soul, chapter vi, 

This brief recollection reveals several things.  First, St. Therese had a consistent devotion towards St. Joseph throughout her life.  Secondly, she trusted St. Joseph to protect her from any impurity on her journey.  She knew that the saints were watching and protecting her, mainly from spiritual harm. 

While Therese was at Rome, she visited the tomb of St. Cecilia in the catacombs.  She recalled:

From the Colosseum we went to the Catacombs, and there Céline and I laid ourselves down in what had once been the tomb of St. Cecilia, and took some of the earth sanctified by her holy remains. Before our journey to Rome I had not felt any special devotion to St. Cecilia, but on visiting the house where she was martyred, and hearing her proclaimed “Queen of harmony”—because of the sweet song she sang in her heart to her Divine Spouse—I felt more than devotion towards her, it was real love as for a friend. She became my chosen patroness, and the keeper of all my secrets; her abandonment to God and her boundless confidence delighted me beyond measure (Story of a Soul, chapter vi, ). 

St. Therese’s devotion to St. Cecilia was rather unique.  It grew suddenly when she learned more about St. Cecilia’s life and visited the place of her martyrdom.  This shows that if we want to develop a devotion to a saint it will be helpful to learn about them.  More importantly, St. Therese and St. Cecilia had the relationship of close friends.  St. Therese loved her and felt St. Cecilia’s love for herself.  She told St. Cecilia things like one might tell a friend.  Additionally, St. Therese was inspired by St. Cecilia’s virtue.  She was not bored by the saint; she was excited by the saint. 

Later in her life, St. Therese received a vision in a dream of Venerable Anne of Jesus (a companion of St. Teresa of Avila), a saint to whom she was not especially devoted.  After she wakes from her dream she is deeply moved by the vision, she writes:

On waking, I realized that Heaven does indeed exist, and that this Heaven is peopled with souls who cherish me as their child, and this impression still remains with me—all the sweeter, because, up to that time, I had but little devotion to the Venerable Mother Anne of Jesus. I had never sought her help, and but rarely heard her name. And now I know and understand how constantly I was in her thoughts, and the knowledge adds to my love for her and for all the dear ones in my Father’s Home (Story of a Soul, chapter xi)

St. Therese points out that heaven is filled with people, with saints, who love us dearly.  She says that they love us as their children.  Even though we may not know them at all, they still love us as their own children.  Even if we totally ignore them, they still love us as their own children.  This means that all our devotion to the saints is a response to their love for us, a disproportionate response to their love because we cannot love them as well as they love us.  Their immense love for us should engender in us love for them, which is exactly what St. Therese describes happening within herself. 

To sum up, what does St. Therese teach us about devotion to the saints?  First, she shows us that devotion to the saints is not some abstract practice, but a real and affectionate friendship with the saints.  Therefore, as with any intimate relationship, it should be a regular practice.  Like St. Theresa’s devotion to St. Joseph, we should pray to the saints regularly, not only when we think we need their help. 

Second, since it is a relationship, we ought to learn more about the saints – more about their lives and writings.  If we want to be close to someone, we get to know them.  This will strengthen our devotion towards the saints and give us more opportunities to learn from them. 

Third, we should be thankful to the saints.  They love us and intercede for us even if we neglect them.  Also, just like God who “loved us first,” the saints also love us first, before we have any devotion towards them (1 John 4:19).  The proper response to unmerited love is thankfulness, love, and devotion. 

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Matthew McKenna is a Ph.D candidate in Theology at Ave Maria University. He studies and teaches on the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, G.K. Chesterton, and J.R.R. Tolkien. His dissertation-in-progress explains the link between the masculine genius and the priesthood.

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